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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Mar 06 2018 1:00pm
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Hello! It’s time for something completely different than my normal articles, and yet expected. As I mentioned in my last article, I entered the Great Designer Search 3 a couple weeks ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to the Top 8 (obviously, since I’m writing this article), but I’m not going to let my work go to waste, as I still think it was interesting. As such, I’m going to have two articles based on my GDS work: one now (on Trial 1) and one sometime after my Masters 25 coverage (on Trials 2 and 3). Speaking of Masters, there was a lot of new reprint information released this week, so I’m still going to cover that before it gets swept up in Masters 25 hype—if you aren’t interested in my GDS work and just want my Masters set opinions, click here to skip to that section. Otherwise, let’s start talking about Wizards of the Coast’s reality show!


Great Designer Search 3: Trial 1

The first trial was an essay test, and mostly served to filter people out who didn’t want to put the work in—the essays weren’t even read until people had advanced to Trial 3 (after the multiple choice test). However, the words are still important. The test was ten essays on various topics, each between 250-350 words. That was harder than it seemed, as I couldn’t divide my thought well enough—it felt like my natural-length paragraphs were around 200 words in most cases, which didn’t fit neatly into that limitation, leading to what seemed to me like either choppy paragraphs or a wall of text. Next, I’m going to reprint each of my ten essays verbatim (with the exception of added card links), then comment on each afterward.


1. Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.

Hello! My name is Vincent, and I have a degree in Computer Science and Math. However, that hides the actual story, which is a knack for problem solving. I enjoy the process of trying to find problems and solving them, and Computer Science and Math were the vectors I expressed them from. Gaming also intertwined itself with my education: my final project for my Math degree was solving an arbitrarily-sized Rubik’s Cube.


As for the Magic connection, my story begins at a unique place: Time Spiral is the set that actually attracted me to the game (though I didn’t actually start getting cards until a couple years later). I understand that’s probably a massive red flag for my application, but I know I’ll have to design for people that aren’t me. I will admit my skill set is biased towards taking existing pieces and putting them together in interesting ways, but hopefully the design test (if I get there) can let me show my creativity.


In terms of design, I’ll point to my Magic writing on PureMTGO. While I’ve written a variety of article types, my passion has been talking about various reprint sets. For every Masters set since Tempest Remastered, I’ve designed my own full prediction of what the set will be. Obviously I’ve never been close to the actual design, but I’ve gotten some pieces correct. Some of my finest moments from those predictions are when I get an archetype mostly correct, such as the GU Graft/Proliferate archetype from Modern Masters 2015. My design observations also weave their way into my other articles, notably my Limited Reviews of current sets and Flashback formats on MTGO.


This was actually one of the hardest essays to write—I don’t like to self-promote myself that much. I focused on my love of problem solving, and also wove in my Magic history and writing in there as well.


2. An evergreen mechanic is a keyword mechanic that shows up in (almost) every set. If you had to make an existing keyword mechanic evergreen, which one would you choose and why?

When you’re adding an evergreen mechanic, it has to somehow both be easy to understand and have plenty of design space, and ideally it would be a creature keyword, which leaves very few choices. As such, I’m going to bend the rules slightly and choose an ability word: Landfall. Unlike most set mechanics it could fit anywhere since (virtually) every deck plays lands, and Magic has done it on cards in non-Zendikar sets like Tireless Tracker, (Architect of the Unclaimed), and Sporemound. The act of playing a land also isn’t hard to track, especially if Landfall is only on a couple of cards each set. As for design space, as the Landfall trigger can be tied to anything, though it would most often be a combat boost (and a version of Landfall that was just +1/+1 could be keyworded just like Prowess). The ability also has a perfect place in the color pie as a combat ability for red/green (trample doesn’t really help combat that much like other evasive abilities), though it would also be tertiary in white due to their Knight of the White Orchid-style catch-up abilities (that I wish white would use slightly more often).


The main downside to making Landfall evergreen is that the mechanic tends to lend itself to more aggressive Limited environments since it rewards hitting your land drops and maintaining a curve, but there are ways to mitigate that. The easiest way to fix that would be to make +1/+1 the base rather than +2/+2—Snapping Gnarlid and Scythe Tiger were part of one of the worst Limited colors in recent history, so the mechanic isn’t inherently overpowered.


I feel like the “should be a combat mechanic” is going to trip people up here, as I expect a lot of Cycling or Flashback suggestions (as they’re mechanics everyone likes). I’m worried about bending the rules too much by saying Landfall, but not only does WotC interchange keywords and ability words a lot in casual conversation, I brought up the suggestion of making it like Prowess as well.


3. If you had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic that is currently evergreen, which one would you remove and why?

Double Strike is the clear choice here as it adds the least to the game by showing up on a regular basis while having some problems. The main role of creature keywords is to allow for differentiation of creatures beyond stats and to define the color pie, and 95% of what Double Strike does in those aspects is replicated by First Strike. In terms of Limited, the difference between a 2/2 Double Strike and a 2/2 First Strike is minor (and only worth about a single mana) and what differences exist aren’t worth the burden of another mechanic (even a relatively easy one like Double Strike). On the other hand, when Double Strike shows up regularly in Limited, it puts a constraint on pump Auras and pump spells in terms of the raw stats they can give—every single-target pump spell in Standard (other than the front half of Onward/Victory and Planeswalker-deck exclusive (Huatli’s Spurring)) either gives a keyword to the creature or has an additional effect like drawing a card or gaining Energy, and same for pump Auras (other than Welcome Deck 17’s Oakenform). Finally, Double Strike is at its best when it is used in a noteworthy way, either on cards that specifically interact with the mechanic (Scrapper Champion, Adorned Pouncer) or on flashy creatures ((Goring Cyclops), Oketra the True). I feel like Double Strike should be dropped down to deciduous, but probably not as infrequent as Protection. The comparison I would make would be to Haste in green: it should be used only in places where it’s going to make an impact (though not necessarily a Constructed one in Double Strike’s case), so only once or twice a year.


I feel like virtually everyone is going to pick Hexproof here, but Double Strike seems like a much easier fix, and as I said in the essay, they’re using Double Strike too much as-is. I wish parts of my argument were better though, especially the “lack of pure pump” section.


4. You're going to teach Magic to a stranger. What's your strategy to have the best possible outcome?

My first step in teaching Magic is to ask why they’re interested in learning Magic now (as I’m assuming I’m not grabbing someone off the street and shoving cards in their face). If they have familiarity with other TCGs/CCGs I would grab some Welcome Decks and just start explaining the rules as necessary with those simple decks—though in all honesty that theoretical person probably found Magic Duels (or Arena, when that comes out) and learned the basics that way.


If they haven’t played a TCG/CCG before you need to find out what drew them to try Magic and latch on to that. Do they like the art on a specific card? Then build a simple deck around that card and others like it/related to it that contains just enough complexity to get through a game. Are they familiar with traditional card games like Hearts or Rummy? Focus on the mechanics Magic shares with those games like drawing and playing cards, then introduce that your melds can attack. Have they played a deckbuilding game before? Introduce Limited earlier in the process than you would for the average student. Do they like video games? Magic Duels gives you the flash and convenience that the cardboard doesn’t—though deferring to Duels feels like cheating (even if that is the right answer in this age, especially if you’re teaching a stranger).


Overall, to teach Magic you need to teach as little as possible and make them want to play again. Unfortunately one of the biggest problems with Magic is that even the simplest case (lands, creatures, and maybe sorceries) is a lot to learn for someone unfamiliar with games, which means you need to use whatever you can to make that process easier.


I really hope there isn’t a “right” answer they’re looking for here, as while I think I hit the high points WotC always talks about, I feel like teaching Magic (without Duels) is nearly impossible.


5. What is Magic's greatest strength and why?

The strongest part of Magic is that it is many different games with the same rules, letting new players jump on in whatever way they prefer while giving enfranchised players variety (that works off the same core skill set). At the simplest level you can let someone who’s never played the game before pick up Magic Duels (or Arena) for free and learn, or pick up a sample deck at a shop. A Prerelease or other Limited event lets you play in paper with no previous investment required, whether you’re advancing from Duels, haven’t played in years, or want to compete on even ground regardless of funds invested. Standard is the next step up the ladder as it is the simplest Constructed format and requires the least investment (and all the cards should be available), but it provides value to enfranchised players due to its constantly changing nature and direct connection with the professional scene. Modern forms the middle ground of Constructed formats: all cards should be available, the card pool is large, the interactions are more complex, and professional support does exist. At the top end, Legacy and Vintage exist not as much as a goal for most players but as a promise: virtually all cards will remain playable in some format, which is important for people buying pieces of cardboard. That simplified ladder doesn’t even include more casual formats that fit between that linear scale, like formats that have large cardpools without the required investment (Pauper and Cube), formats that have primary goals other than winning (Commander and other casual formats), or formats that appear specifically to fill an unfilled niche (Frontier, Duel Commander, 1v1 draft formats, and plenty more).


This, on the other hand, feels like the “right” answer, and the one I would choose regardless. I just wish it wasn’t a wall of text, but there’s no natural place to divide it without making each sentence its own paragraph, which doesn’t seem right either.


6. What is Magic's greatest weakness and why?

Magic will always be too complex for the average person to learn. What’s worse is that it’s not like Wizards of the Coast hasn’t tried to fix the problem. It’s just that everything they have tried hasn’t worked, or has inherent problems: beginner sets (or games) don’t sell, big box products at best come with a sheet of paper to explain one of the most complex mass-market games in the world, local game stores have always been intimidating places for a player unfamiliar with that culture, and Magic’s digital product of choice keeps changing every couple of years (and that’s if you get lucky and find a version of Duels and not Magic Online). There also needs to be a reason to learn Magic: cardboard seems outdated in today’s world, and similar alternatives are available in the space that provide 80% of the experience with 20% of the headaches.


The one promising aspect is that some of the things Wizards of the Coast has tried have made visible progress. The overwhelming success of Duels of the Planeswalkers (combined with other things such as New World Order and the new model for the Core Set) led to one of the biggest expansions the game has ever seen, and Magic the Gathering: Arena should do the same thing if the new Digital team can break the trends in previous digital products and stick with it (and so far the core looks good). The new emphasis on story in the cards provides a new vector for interested players to latch on to the game. Supplemental products let players who don’t care about 1v1 play have a reason to buy new products. And of course the movie and MMO could expose the IP to a new group of potential players that aren’t gamers or TCG fans if they ever come out.


Of all the questions that I struggled to meet the length on, this was probably the hardest—that second paragraph doesn’t correspond to the actual question (what is the weakness) and instead tries to solve the problem.


7. What Magic mechanic most deserves a second chance (aka which had the worst first introduction compared to its potential)?

Unearth should have been one of the most popular mechanics, as it’s basically a (non-broken) version of creature Flashback, and yet it’s mostly been forgotten other than a variant in the form of Amonkhet’s Entomb and Eternalize (which is fundamentally different since it’s a permanent creature). I feel like a lot of that comes from the Grixis shard, as the main mechanics of the shard were overshadowed by the flashiness of (Nicol Bola, Planeswalker) and Cruel Ultimatum. To put it in another way, Grixis is a value color combination, and one turn of a creature isn’t that much value. Furthermore, Unearth didn’t really fit the shard: obviously black likes a graveyard mechanic and red works because the reanimation is temporary, but why does blue care? Overall that means not much was done with the mechanic: an Entomb effect, some enters the battlefield/leaves the battlefield effects, and a surprising number of generic creatures, even at higher rarities.


The easiest way to expand Unearth is to move it out of blue and into the color that cares about both creatures and the graveyard: green. Not only does it make much more sense than blue, but it provides a much larger variety of creatures (notably big creatures; a 6/6 vanilla Unearth creature would play differently than most of the Alara block Unearth creatures). I also feel they could have been more saboteur than Kathari Bomber, as it provides a reason for those green creatures without evasion to not be chump-blocked when they are Unearthed. Finally, one of my favorite Unearth designs is the simple Viscera Dragger, so pairing Unearth with whatever Channel variant is in the set could go on a couple more cards.


My answer to this was going to be Frenzy for the longest time, but then I chickened out and went with Unearth (aka creature Flashback). Unfortunately, re-reading the section shows I said saboteur means more creatures not chump-blocked, which is the opposite of what I meant—oops.


8. Of all the Magic expansions that you've played with, pick your favorite and then explain the biggest problem with it.

Future Sight somehow managed to take complex concepts that were already over the line for a normal Magic set and push them to another level in multiple ways. Time Spiral block already was pushing complexity boundaries with nine returning mechanics (ten if you count Vanishing as returning, and not counting any of the one-of mechanics on the time-shifted sheet) alongside Suspend and Split-Second, two of the most complex mechanics in Modern, as well as four complex tribes. On top of that, Future Sight added complexity in four different ways. First, two more returning mechanics were added (Scry and Cycling), which weren’t that complex considering everything else, but added to the burden of learning the set. Second, the future-shifted cards not only expanded on the existing mechanics but added a lot of new ones that play in weird ways. Third, the new mechanics were made even more complex through cards like (Chromatic Escape) and (Venser’s Diffusion). Finally, many of the non-future-shifted cards have multiple mechanics that synergize well together, and these mechanics include not only the fourteen mechanics already in the set but seven of the mechanics from Ravnica as well.


The return of Ravnica mechanics stands out the most of all of those points, as they don’t make sense within the context of the block (bringing back old mechanics from the pre-Modern past) and don’t add much in terms of future-shifted variants (just Fleshwrither) or the mix-and-match cards (most of the land cycle has skewed older formats, Sprout Swarm was the biggest problem with limited, and the others are unspectacular like Bogardan Lancer and Spirit En-Dal). Obviously just removing the Ravnica mechanics wouldn’t have solved the problem, but it would have been a big step without removing that much that made the set unique.


“Future Sight was too complex” isn’t exactly a controversial take (and Future Sight is obviously going to be the favorite set of someone who started around Time Spiral and likes making Masters sets for fun), but I felt the direct avenue of trashing the added Ravnica mechanics adds something different to the discussion. I also noticed another editing mistake: (Chromatic Escape) and Venser's Diffusion still had the parentheses around them like I was writing for PureMTGO (which was a hard habit to break for these essays).


9. Of all the Magic expansions that you've played with, pick your least favorite and then explain the best part about it.

Avacyn Restored was one of the first sets to clearly communicate tone, flavor, and story through the cards in the set. Looking back at the previous sets in the fifth age of design, Scars of Mirrodin clearly told you who won the war but not why or how, while the first two sets in Innistrad block set up the world well but not how the Humans were going to save the plane (other than the “Chekhov's gun” appearance of the Helvault in Dark Ascension). Avacyn Restored, on the other hand, puts the consequences of the opening of the Helvault front and center, both through the proliferation of Angels and Demons in the set (and at much lower rarities than normal) as well as putting the top players in those tribes at mythic (Avacyn, Griselbrand, and the gold Angel trio). The mechanics do well at telling the story as well. The Humans need a Miracle to save themselves (which are not common). The Humans need to team up (or pair up) to stop the monsters and Demons, and they are stronger in greater numbers (Human tribal, and to some extent the token subtheme). The monsters haven’t changed much (so they still have some continuity with the rest of the block by retaining Undying), but there aren’t as many so they need to be stronger when alone (especially in black, the primary color of the loner theme). Even the flickering theme (the clearest gameplay-focused mechanic) was flavored by Angels or Spirits saving the Humans. The gameplay of those story-based mechanics may not have been the best, but it paved the way to other flavor-filled mechanics like Exert, Meld, and Ascend in later sets.


Again, “Avacyn Restored was bad for the enfranchised player” is pretty well established, but I really think it was one of the first sets to have story cards anyone could recognize. This is also the essay where my writing style hurt the most—so many parentheticals, and one long paragraph looks bad.


10. You have the ability to change any one thing about Magic. What do you change and why?

My answer will probably be the least popular of all of them, but it’s to reduce the number of Magic products released. As of the release of Dominaria at the end of April, the past two years will have had five large standard sets (starting with Shadows over Innistrad), four small standard sets, four Masters sets, two supplemental booster sets (Conspiracy: Take the Crown and Unstable), two Commander sets, four Duel Decks, two supplemental box sets (Archenemy: Nicol Bolas and Explorers of Ixalan), two From the Vault sets, and two Anthology box sets, for a total of 27 total products with unique expansion symbols (not counting the Masterpieces), or more than one per month. Obviously a pure numbers comparison isn’t completely fair, as no one is expected to buy everything, some products take more effort to design than others, and others have already been discontinued, but in addition to the number of products, each product is getting more complex. Standard is moving to three large sets and a core set (which is the same size as a large set, even if it’s easier to design than a normal large set), which means more worlds and more cards, and even the move to two blocks a year hasn’t been the best time for Magic in terms of its most important formats (Limited and Standard). Considering that, it’s no surprise that the best-received release of 2017 is the set that was mostly finished before the massive increase in release cadence (Unstable).


Overall I feel the move to large Standard sets could be a good move, but the supplemental sets need to be trimmed: having multiple Masters sets in one year over-saturates them, and there should be only one casual set with new cards a year (Conspiracy or Commander, but not both). The other products can still exist, but they should be tied to existing products (things like the Challenger Decks or Explorers of Ixalan) to keep the focus on the main products and not overwhelm players.


This answer has me worried the most, as while the tenth answer traditionally has been the one where the contestants get to go “off the board” in terms of their answers (what is Magic doing wrong, pick a plane to revisit), social media was cautioning against picking answers that WotC wouldn’t like (and “release fewer products” certainly is one of them). Notably, I walk it back a bit at the end and say the point is “don’t over-expose Masters sets and don’t release as many new cards for casual players,” but it still doesn’t look bad—hopefully I have a good design test.


Overall I’m never going to like something I write—even these articles never look good in hindsight to me. In hindsight I wouldn’t be shocked if Essay 10 disqualified me off the bat, but I have plenty of problems in my design test too. Now let’s talk about reprints!


Reprint Set News:

As I mentioned in my opener, there is a lot of random news about reprints to talk about, so let’s talk about each part in turn:


Challenger Decks:

This is the least relevant part of the news (as Challenger Decks currently aren’t planned for MTGO), but considering they’re already moving prices on MTGO they’re certainly worth discussing. Obviously everyone was shocked at the value of these decks at their first impression, until you realized the trick WotC is using: most of the value is rotating in the Fall, so they can print a lot more. I also wouldn’t be shocked if this level of quality was a one-time way to buy players’ happiness after a rocky couple of Standard seasons with multiple bannings, and future products in the line aren’t quite as good (though there’s a lot of room between old Event Decks and these Challenger Decks). It’ll also be harder to make decks earlier in the format (notably in the Fall, when the oldest cards are farthest from rotating). Overall WotC has proven they know how to reprint cards (though this isn’t necessarily new—good cards like Stoneforge Mystic, fetchlands, and Birthing Pod were in Event Decks right before they rotated), so this is all upside for the moment.


Future of Masters Sets:

Gavin Verhey wrote an article on the history and future of Masters sets, and the main point of it is that Masters sets won’t be focused on formats anymore, but instead themes. This isn’t a surprise, as that’s what has been going on since Modern Masters 2017, though Iconic Masters didn’t really hit that well (even if you realized “Iconic” meant iconic tribes). I’ve been using that in my designs as well (mostly as a constraint to guide them), and hopefully it leads to more interesting sets as a whole with more relevant reprints. Unfortunately, the biggest question (will there be a second Masters set in 2018) and biggest complaint (Masters sets being sold at mass-market retail) about Masters sets weren’t addressed in this article, so there are still plenty of things to complain about.


Masters 25 First Impressions:

I’m writing this on Tuesday, and you’ll see plenty of Masters 25 coverage from me starting next week (though I’m not sure if it’ll be the Design/Financial Review or the Limited Review; probably the latter, though let me know if you have a preference) but for now I have a very small piece of the picture (aka too small to start talking about value). We did get confirmation that the watermarks include both old oddball sets (Imperial Recruiter from Portal: Three Kingdoms) and new supplemental sets (Prossh, Skyraider of Kher from Commander 2013), which is nice. As for unique reprints, they’ve covered 11 sets as of this writing, though ignoring promos and other weird releases brings that total up to 16 sets (so slightly below pace, given ~20% of the set has been revealed so far). My predictions didn’t start off well on the first day (only hitting Thalia, Guardian of Thraben), but the second day has been much better, as obvious calls like Rishadan Port (though I’m still shocked it’s rare, especially considering Limited and the relatively lackluster mythic lineup so far) and Ensnaring Bridge pair with oddities like (Eldamri’s Call) and filler like Ruric Thar, the Unbowed and Ball Lightning. My archetypes also aren’t looking completely off the mark yet (as little as we know of them) as Morph is in the set (and Willbender points to a theme much more than Akroma, Angel of Fury does), Pillage at common is a step towards meaningful land destruction, and the downshifts of Balduvian Horde and Undead Gladiator could mean a Madness theme exists (though Zombify points more towards Reanimator). Overall this set looks very good (even if all the Alpha/Beta cards here should have been in Iconic Masters), and I’m very interested in what else is in the set.


One of the nice things about Magic is that there’s always something exciting coming, as my disappointment at losing my GDS3 bid was almost immediately swept up by the excitement of a Masters spoiler season. Next week I’ll kick my Masters 25 coverage into high gear (though the work has already started by updating my spreadsheet).



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Thank you for sharing! by stsung at Tue, 03/06/2018 - 15:37
stsung's picture

Thank you for sharing!

You're welcome--good to know by Cheater Hater at Wed, 03/07/2018 - 00:04
Cheater Hater's picture

You're welcome--good to know that someone is reading probably my most self-indulgent article yet (even if I stuck in the reprint set news at the end).

I also read it, and edited by JXClaytor at Wed, 03/07/2018 - 00:32
JXClaytor's picture

I also read it, and edited several others.

Yours was the only one that did not mention hexproof.